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Styles of Writing, Techniques of Mentorship: A Tribute to Michel-Rolph Trouillot

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Ralph as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Michael is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, and Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU. He is the author of the entries on Commodity, Diaspora, and Hip hop in Social Text 100, and of the forthcoming University of Chicago Press book Forensics of Capital based on his research in Senegal.)

The idea of having your own writing style is an illusion. In fact, we learn to write by digesting the writers we love. We obsess over the elegant turns of phrase they appear to deliver effortlessly, and pore over our own drafts hoping to wrench beauty from passages that have been pummeled by angst and uncertainty. If we manage to enjoy success in writing (or really, in editing), it is generally because we have been well trained. At some point, someone made it her mission to instill in us a sense of conviction about the words we wield. We learned to appreciate the magic of authorship. But, it is easier to trace the blessed path to writerly righteousness in retrospect. Learning to write (which means learning to think and plan more carefully) can be a curious kind of training, in part because we don’t always know when it is happening. In reflecting upon my own training, I decided to dedicate this column to the person who initiated me into the anthropological guild, Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

In what is perhaps my most acute memory from the first year of my PhD program in Anthropology at the University of Chicago, I was walking up the stairs toward the Haskell Hall Mezzanine, as Andrew Apter and Michel-Rolph Trouillot were on their way down. “Hey,” Andy exclaimed, “Michael Ralph—Michel Rolph: you guys have the same name.” Rolph was not amused. I can’t even put his expression into words, but it was something like, “There is little, if anything, similar between this young man and myself, at this juncture.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Rolph was mean, just that he had a very particular idea about mastery. He expected his students to adopt rigor as a crucial element of their intellectual formation. Faculty routinely speak about treating their students as friends. Rolph instead believed that training implied a clear hierarchy and series of protocols through which a student would ultimately become an expert—and ideally, one day, a master. As early as my prospective students’ weekend, someone destined to be part of my cohort had asked if Chicago faculty treated their students as equals. Rolph fielded the question and flatly told the student, “If there was no difference between you and I, there would be no reason for me to be here.” Thus, while I feel indebted to Rolph for endowing me with the conceptual framework that animates my work, I have to confess that the process of acquiring knowledge and securing feedback was part of the challenge that training entailed. As Malcolm X once said of his mentor, “I feared him…like you fear the power of the sun.” But then, Rolph’s “Introduction to Social and Cultural Analysis” (aka “Systems”) syllabus began with the fifteenth century political theorist Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli. And my initiation involved a lot more fear than love—or so I thought at the time.

Rolph treated the students he mentored like Knights of the Round Table. He expected us to swing swords that we initially were barely strong enough to lift as a way to cultivate our intellectual fortitude. He assigned so much reading and placed such a high demand on our writing, and insisted so much that we clarify our arguments, that his training forced us to spend countless hours devoted to the task of becoming a better scholar. In the process, we were not simply forever changed as thinkers and writers—Rolph’s method of initiation changed our physical constitutions. Rolph’s approach to knowledge was, in this sense, monastic. His grueling work regime left me feeling like a friar in the darkened basement of a medieval castle, poring over texts. But for all the rigor he promoted and embodied, he was also the most imaginative thinker I have ever come across. In that sense, being trained by Rolph was like going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many of the allusions that come to mind when thinking about Rolph’s intellectual legacy emerge from the medieval period. For, he instilled in us an appreciation for both the breadth and the continuity that defines historical inquiry. After all anthropology was, for Rolph, a historical enterprise. For some anthropologists, ethnography is the only method that matters. Rolph’s approach, instead, combined history, anthropology, and critical social theory. These distinctions are, in fact, often more misleading than they are beneficial. For Rolph, what an ethnographer does is quite similar to what a historian does: scholars in both fields make use of cultural artifacts (whether as discrete objects, built structures, or texts), they conduct interviews when possible, they develop arguments concerned with the way that people navigate and negotiate social transformation. The crucial difference between an ethnographer and a historian thus becomes the question of periodization: the historian might explore transformations over several centuries, a half-century…a decade, while ethnographers strives to make sense of the way that people understand the world around them in the course of a year, or a few years.  For this reason, the context of an inquiry is always crucial to tease out.

In this regard it is telling that when Rolph assigned work from someone like Immanuel Kant, he veered away from the Critique of Moral Judgment, focusing instead on his 1798 publication, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. I imagine Rolph was trying to teach us that, in addition to the specific disciplinary trajectory of a field that we call, “Anthropology,” there is a social theory tradition available to us that has likewise been concerned with the norms, protocols, and ritual procedures through which people authorize trade compacts, establish control of territories, arrive at some sense of what they find sacred, and learn to adjudicate social difference. For Rolph, this debate about the stakes of social belonging had a long arc.

In recalling the conversations we had in class and office hours—and my favorite passages from his many books, articles, and essays—I am reminded that Rolph routinely looked to the fifteenth, rather than the nineteenth, century for his understanding of what it meant to be modern. His critique of colonialism was not merely about the transformation from slavery into colonialism and the formal acquisition of territories, but about the way that Renaissance-era notions of difference had structured European (or, what he preferred to call, “North Atlantic”) perspectives of people and polities in what is now Africa, Asia, as well as the Caribbean and Latin America. In fact, in his critique of prevailing scholarship on the origins of capital, industry, and governance, Rolph insisted the Atlantic world was where modernity had been worked out and that African people, products, and technologies had been central, rather than auxiliary, to these developments. Like his mentor Sidney Mintz, he saw in the conjuncture of finance capital—as well as in labor regimes and land allotments fitted to actuarial projections of future profit, and the vexed process through which any given polity secured diplomatic standing amongst its peers and rivals—the making of a political and economic system that would shape global trade and diplomacy for centuries to come.

If Rolph was a Renaissance man, it is because he viewed knowledge as as much sacred as it was purportedly secular. It is also because he sought to cultivate insights from an intellectual tradition that stretched back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, drawing Thomas More and Machiavelli into conversation with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michel de Montaigne, Baron de Montesquieu, and others, as a matter of course. This was not simply Rolph’s method, but his pedagogy.

On the flip side, Rolph was a Renaissance man in the classic sense. Rolph was a historian, anthropologist, novelist, and folklorist, among other things. And, even in his creative projects, we see many of the key insights and historical themes that would animate his scholarship. And, as writing is as much about re-thinking as re-deploying, I like to think that creativity is ultimately the most urgent mandate Rolph persuaded me to abide by.

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I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.